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The Library's newest Crime Classics release, "The Thinking Machine."

Crime Classics Returns: “The Thinking Machine”

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This is a guest post by Grace Conroy, an intern in the Library’s Publishing Office.

Intriguing, astonishing, mind-boggling — such are the intellectual feats of professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, otherwise known as “The Thinking Machine” in Jacques Futrelle’s short story collection of the same name. The 1907 volume, the latest in the Library’s Crime Classics series, follows the eccentric scientist on a series of exploits as he attempts to prove there is no such thing as a perfect crime.

As Crime Classics series editor Leslie S. Klinger states in the introduction, Futrelle’s first story about the Thinking Machine introduced “one of the most admired creations in the history of crime fiction.”

Born in Georgia in 1875, Futrelle was a journalist who worked his way from Atlanta to Boston by the time he was in his late 20s. He dabbled in crime writing until 1905, when his newspaper, the Boston American, published “The Problem of Cell 13.” Published in six parts, the story follows neurotic professor Van Dusen, nicknamed the Thinking Machine, as he vows to break out of prison using only his cleverness and ingenuity. In the story, the details of his eventual escape astonished the professor’s colleagues and the prison’s warden. In real life, it fascinated readers around the country.

The Thinking Machine’s frail body, wild blond hair and aloof mannerisms made him a peculiar protagonist. Stories featuring the enigmatic professor proved so popular that Futrelle left his newspaper job and churned out more than 40 crime stories to meet the public’s demand, as well as several novels.

This Crime Classics entry includes “The Problem of Cell 13” and six other stories dedicated to the Thinking Machine’s clever mind. Standouts include “The Flaming Phantom,” revealing how Van Dusen debunks the theory of a haunted house; “The Scarlet Thread,” in which he solves the mysterious case of a murderous gas light; and “The Mystery of a Studio,” in which he takes on the case of a missing girl from an infamous painting. Throughout these adventures, the Thinking Machine is accompanied by journalist Hutchinson Hatch, who serves alternately as accomplice, interlocutor and stand-in for the reader, in the tradition of the Holmes-Watson partnership.

Jacques Futrelle. Photo from the frontispiece of “My Lady’s Garter.”

Futrelle’s life ended prematurely. He and his wife, May, booked first-class passage on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. On April 14, 1912, the “unsinkable” ship failed to evade a large iceberg. May recounted her final moments with her husband in the April 20, 1912, edition of The Pensacola Journal:

“Jack died like a hero. … He was in the smoking room when the crash came. The noise of the smash was terrific. I was going to bed. I was hurried from my feet by the impact. I hardly found myself when Jack came rushing into the room.

“‘The boat is going down; get dressed at once,’ he shouted. When we reached the deck everything was in the wildest confusion. The screams of women and the shrill orders of the officers were drowned intermittently by the tremendous vibrations of the Titanic’s deep bass fog horn. …

“I didn’t want to leave Jack but he assured me that there were boats enough for all and that he would be rescued later.

“‘Hurry up, May! You’re keeping the others waiting,’ were his last words as he lifted me into a lifeboat and kissed me good-bye. I was in one of the last lifeboats to leave the ship. We had not put out many minutes when the Titanic disappeared. I almost thought as I saw her sink beneath the water that I could see Jack standing where I had left him and waving at me.”

The Tittanic in the ocean, viewed from front right.
Approximately 1,500 people died aboard the Titanic, including Jacques Futrelle. Photo: New York World-Telegram & Sun. Prints and Photographs Division

After her husband’s death, May published two of Futrelle’s novels. She also published two of her own, “Secretary of Frivolous Affairs” and “Lieutenant What’s-His-Name.” (During their marriage, May had helped write the first part of “The Grinning God,” as a creative challenge for Futrelle to finish the second half.)

A few of Futrelle’s stories had lives beyond their pages. “The Problem of Cell 13” was adapted into two television episodes; other novels, unrelated to the Thinking Machine, were also adapted into films.

Paramount Artcraft Pictures used “My Lady’s Garter” to produce the 1920 silent film of the same name. Futrelle’s “thrilling mystery-romance,” as it was promoted by Paramount, centered around the Countess of Salisbury’s stolen jeweled garter. Raymond L. Schrock also adapted Futrelle’s novel about a battle of wits between English and American diplomats, “Elusive Isabel,” into a six-reel picture. The Library also has descriptive material relating to copyright registrations for “A Model Young Man” and “The Diamond Queen.”

To promote “My Lady’s Garter,” Paramount Artcraft Pictures released a press book. National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.

His influence wasn’t lost on other writers, either. More than a century after Futrelle’s death, Gene Weingarten, the two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist at the Washington Post, nicknamed his laptop Augustus Van Dusen because it was. of course, a thinking machine.

The world lost an incredible crime author on the Titanic but his legacy endures in his short stories and novels and their film adaptations. This most recent publication of the Library’s Crime Classics series reintroduces readers to the excitement of Jacques Futrelle’s mysteries.

Library of Congress Crime Classics are published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in association with the Library of Congress. Each volume includes the original text, an introduction, author biography, notes, recommendations for further reading and suggested discussion questions from mystery expert Leslie S. Klinger. “The Thinking Machine,” published on June 6, is available in softcover ($14.99) from booksellers worldwide, including the Library of Congress shop.

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Comments (2)

  1. Fascinating!
    I am an Indagator who writes training material for government intelligent officers transitioning to the private sector, but this is new to me. Thank you!
    William (Maxon) Johnson, Ph.D.

  2. Futrelle was one of the best crime writers of all time in my estimation, and ranks with Conan Doyle, R Austin Freeman and Ngiao Marsh for thoughtful plotting and character development. Everything Futrelle wrote deserves to be in publication at this time.

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